Gunung Tahan - Lin Yangchen
  • Gunung Tahan


©Lin Yangchen

I first published much of this content online in 2004, based on direct consultation of original journal papers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries held at the Central Library of the National University of Singapore. Large chunks of this article were subsequently reused without my knowledge in a journal article, a tour agent's website and a poster at National Park Headquarters. My version, however, remains the most accurate as it is updated whenever new information emerges.


Taman Negara crest rhinoceros
The coat of arms of Taman Negara

The face of Tahan suddenly revealed itself, rising from the depths of the mountain gorge like a colossal tsunami. The air trembled with the muffled roar of distant waterfalls.—the author on an expedition to Gunung Tahan (2187 m), highest mountain in the Malay peninsula, June 2002

Early surveys and first ascent

Robinson (1908a,b) gives an account of the early exploration of Gunung Tahan. The ‘first European to hear of Gunong Tahan’ was the Russian explorer Baron Mikluho-Maclay who in 1875 ‘noticed at some distance a remarkable mountain which was pointed out to me as Gunong Tahan’ (Skinner 1878). Sir F. A. Swettenham (1884), on a visit to the main range in Perak, 100 km west of the Tahan massif, reported:

Within a very few minutes of first sighting the mountain it was no longer visible, and even the cloud seemed to have merged in the haze of the horizon, making it difficult to believe that we had really seen there a far more imposing height than any I have yet beheld in the Peninsula.

Two of the earliest expeditions were sent by the Sultan of Pahang at an unknown date in search of magic stones at the summit. According to the folklore of the Orang Asli, a rhinoceros-sized monkey guarded two pots containing the ‘ibu mas’ and ‘ibu perak’. An approach via the 1000 m Teku gorge was taken which seemed the most straightfoward. However, both parties were doomed to failure by towering precipices. The ‘first serious [but failed] attempt on the...enormous mountain...ranging in height...from 10,000 to 14,000 ft.’ (one estimate put it at 20,000 ft. (Scrivenor 1912)) was made only in 1890 by H. N. Ridley (Ridley 1892).

In 1893 H. M. Becher, who was ‘prospecting the district’, decided to camp on an island in the Tahan River. He disregarded the advice of the locals that ‘an island was not a safe place in a river like the Tahan’. ‘Shortly after dinner it was noticed that the river was rising rapidly and Mr. Becher...and the Malays...cast off in [a] hurry, leaving the other white man on the island, clinging to the bushes; for, by this time, it was all under water’. ‘Mr Becher stood up and tried to guide the boat with a pole, although they begged him to sit down and let them do it. As a result, the boat upset and he was never seen again.’ Years later Mr. Robinson would report that although the island was 6 feet above water, ‘all the bushes growing on it were bent down stream, showing that they were frequently submerged.’

Gunung Tahan Sungai Tahan Expedition boat Robinson 1905
Pulling boats up the Tahan River in the first successful expedition to Gunong [sic] Tahan, 1905 (Robinson 1908b). I have pinpointed this location as Lata Berkoh, a popular bathing spot today, by matching the rocks in this photograph with the present-day scene.

W. W. Skeat was the first to get farther than the lowlands. After having ‘planted some durian and rambutan seeds’ somewhere along the Tahan River and ‘scaring away a rhinoceros’, he ascended as far as the spot known today as Gunung Pankin (1463 m) which he marked with a flag.


Leitmotif of an unknown animal notated by Lin Yangchen at Kem Kor (750 m) on the west face of Gunung Tahan at dawn, 1 July 2002. Pitches are relative.

According to Graham (1908), the first ascent of Gunong Tahan was made from the Kelantan side in 1899 by a member of the Cambridge Scientific Expedition, who reappeared after being gone for "many days" and shaken by fever and dysentery. Another ascent was made in 1901 from the Kelantan side, followed by one from the Pahang side in 1906 (Graham 1908).

Lin Yangchen on the summit of Gunung Tahan
The author on the summit of Gunung Tahan with guides Faizal and Atan in 2016.
Nikon F, silver halide print
©Lin Yangchen

According to Robinson (1908b), however, Herbert C. Robinson, Che Nik, Mu’min, Mat Aris and Bulang were the first to reach the summit of Gunung Tahan, at 10:15 on 16 July 1905, nearly two months after leaving Kuala Tahan (it is now a few days' trek). They ascended by boat along the Tahan River until Kuala Teku (5th Camp), the confluence between the Teku and Tahan rivers, where they established what I regard as Tahan Base Camp, drawing inspiration from Himalayan mountaineering. Kuala Teku is arguably situated at the actual foot of Gunung Tahan (see altitudinal profile below). The track cleared beyond Kuala Teku in 1905, if I understand their report correctly, remains to this day. Leonard Wray (1853-1942), being afflicted with dysentery at Camp VI (later named Wray’s Camp), could not accompany Mr. Robinson farther up the mountain (Robinson 1908b). Robinson (1908b) on the climb from Gunung Pankin, the previous high point reached by Skeat, in the direction of Gunung Tahan:

Rather an alarming account was given [by the advance party] of the nature of the hills, and the difficulties encountered in getting along the ridges beyond Skeat’s flag. Several said that they were not brave enough to walk along them, and the Dato’ declared that it made him so giddy that he was unable to proceed.

Gunung Tahan tropical montane cloud forest bonsai mist
Tropical montane cloud forest on the upper ramparts of Gunung Tahan.
©Lin Yangchen

Elevations above sea level were established by the 1905 expedition by means of an aneroid barometer. At 900 m, the last sounds of primates faded away (Robinson 1908). Although Mr. Robinson had determined the summit elevation to be approximately 7200 ft., the official figure in 1906 was 7050 ft. which was surpassed by Gunong Riam (Gunung Korbu) at 7160 ft. By 1912 Gunong Tahan was rightfully granted its stature of 7186 ft. (Scrivenor 1912).

On the way back, Mr. Robinson ‘had a rather exciting journey to Kuala Tahan, as the river was in heavy flood.’ In another expedition years later, ‘a race was held along the last reach to Kuala Tahan and was contested with great keen[n]ess and much noise’ (Strugnell & Mead 1937).

Geography

Gunung Tahan lies within what is now Taman Negara, the only remaining large tract of virgin evergreen dipterocarp rainforest on the Malay peninsula. It is part of a 27,469 km2 tract of forest stretching northwards to southern Thailand (Kawanishi et al. 2001). The biological diversity of this Pleistocene refugium is further boosted by the indigenous Negrito Batek Orang Asli (van der Schot 1990) according to the non-equilibrium model promulgated by Connell (1978).

Gunung Tahan mountain scenery
Walking with the clouds on the high ridges of the Tahan massif, in a vast wilderness stretching to the ends of the earth.
©Lin Yangchen

The Tahan mountain range strikes southwards from Trengganu for approximately 120 km before being intercepted by Sungai ('river') Pahang. It continues as intermittent bumps in east Johore (including Gunung Belumut) and degenerates into Bukit Timah Hill and Mount Faber in Singapore (Scrivenor 1908). The Tahan massif itself is primarily a block of sandstone, mudstone and conglomerate (Komoo et al. 1985) partly metamorphosed at approximately 800 ◦C (Mottana et al. 1978) to massive or slightly schistose white (almost pure quartz) or red quartzite. Quartz veins, a few metres long and up to 20 cm wide, are common (Komoo et al. 1985). Quartz crystals are also abundant (Soepadmo 1971), which may have been the origin of the magic stones legend (Scrivenor 1912). In contrast, Gunung Benom and the Titiwangsa range are dominated by granite at high altitudes.

Peninsular Malaysia Malaya mountain height elevation
Peaks in direct line of sight from the summit of Gunung Tahan. Data derived from Fullard (1957).

Gunung Gedung

A rocky prominence on the southeast ridge of Gunung Tahan overlooking the Padang.

Gunung Gedung
The old wooden signboard in 2003, now gone. ©Lin Yangchen


Gunung Gedung plane crash
Crash of Mirage IIIO supersonic jet on 4 May 1972 (2016 photograph). Royal Australian Air Force Flying Officer Lloyd Smith, a member of Malaysia-based 3 Squadron, was on a low-level night radar navigation exercise out of Butterworth air base when he disappeared with his interceptor aircraft numbered A3-85. A recovery team located the crash site on the upper slopes of Gunung Gedung after two days of intensive searches. Smith had strayed 13 nautical miles off course, according to recovery team member Rod Farquhar. He left his pregnant wife Christine, with whom he had recently celebrated their first wedding anniversary. ©Lin Yangchen

The Padang

Strugnell & Mead (1937) noted that the Padang, a high plateau on the Tahan massif, was an ‘ideal locality for military manoeuvres and artillery ranges could be sited almost anywhere’. Wooden huts with cement floors, tables and a library full of books were built on the Padang prior to 1924 and remained standing as late as 1937 (Strugnell & Mead 1937).

The Padang is disproportionately rich in butterfly species probably due to the invasion of lowland species by two complementary mechanisms (Kirton et al. 1990). Firstly, ‘planktonic’ species may be blown aloft by orographic lifting. Secondly, ‘nekton’ may engage in hill-topping which promotes mating through aggregation. Among the rare species restricted to high altitudes and common at the Padang (Kirton et al. 1990) are Chilasa agestor agestor Gray and Austrozephyrus absolon malayicus Pendlebury.

Prinia atrogularis waterstradti Hartert 1902 (Tahan Hill Warbler), endemic to the Padang, is very abundant. Its usual call is a shrill twee-twee although a pleasant song may issue (Robinson 1928). Like the butterfly Ypthima pandocus tahanensis, this orographic subspecies of P. atrogularis occurs only on Gunung Tahan. Wells (1990) has suggested that P. atrogularis waterstradti and similar subspecies were more widespread during the last ice age. In the present interglacial, the Padang, being the only adequate area of elfin scrub in the Malay peninsula, serves as a refugium.

Gunung Tahan fruticose lichen
Fruticose lichen bearing red apothecia on the upper slopes of Gunung Tahan.
©Lin Yangchen

Lower down, evidence of hill genesis by compressive rock bending takes the form of anticlines and synclines in Sungai Tahan (Scrivenor 1908). Where the trail runs along the ridge one may come across ‘peculiar open spaces several yards square and absolutely devoid of leaves and rubbish’ (Skeat 1908). ‘They are nothing more than the playing-grounds of the Argus Pheasant’ (Robinson, footnote to Skeat (1908)).

Gunung Tahan mountain trek hike route map
The original route from Kuala Tahan to the summit. From an undated (probably c. 1970s) edition of the official Taman Negara guidebook.

Gunung Tahan mountain trek hike route map
The complete west-east summit traverse of Gunung Tahan undertaken by the author's expeditions in 2002, 2003 and 2016.

Kuala Teku

Hydrology. The Tahan watershed drains an area of approximately 157 km2 (Khan 1990). Sungai Tahan is a sixth-order stream according to the Strahler scheme. Exponential regression of the bifurcation curve fits the equation y = 1092.3e−1.2333x. At Sungai Melantai, the pseudo-monsoon forest formation may be due to the rain shadow of Gunung Tahan (Johnson 1969).


A team-mate negotiating the swelling waters of the Sungai Tahan in the 2003 expedition.
Nikon FM2, 35mm colour transparency
©Lin Yangchen

Leptotrombidium deliense, the known vector of Rickettsia tsutsugamushi, is very rare in undisturbed lowland forest in Taman Negara. Contraction of scrub typhus is therefore unlikely except in Orang Asli clearings (Dohany et al. 1980). Humans are incidental hosts to three endoparasites in Taman Negara (table below; see Ho & Krishnasamy 1990). On the other hand, it is unlikely that one would be affected by the unidentified contagious disease that in May 1905 exterminated the Selangor chickens meant for the consumption of Messrs. Wray and Robinson (Robinson 1908b).

Gunung Tahan parasites

A note by Hislop (1956) on the Hymenoptera: these hornets made regular forays to pounce on bees,...alighting on the back of a grounded bee and attempting to sting it...a fierce battle would ensue, both contestants struggling furiously on the ground until the bee succumbed to the stings of its adversary and lay still. The ‘naning’ would then drag the dead bee about until it found a suitable place from which to become airborne...

Weigum (1971) witnessed near Kuala Tahan a seladang (Bos gaurus hubbacki) herd charging at a tiger. The tiger fled. Moll & Khan (1990) ‘observed the tracks of a tiger and a softshell [turtle] which had converged on a sand bank upriver from Kuala Tahan. There were signs of a scuffle but no blood and the turtle tracks continued on back to the water while the tiger’s returned to the forest.’

Gunung Tahan orchid orchidaceae flower monocotyledon botany
The montane orchid Dendrochilum linearifolium, found in Borneo and Malaya on exposed substrates from 1200 m to 2100 m and common on Gunung Tahan (Seidenfaden & Wood 1992). ©Lin Yangchen

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